The city of New Orleans exists in perpetual renaissance. Each year, Mardi Gras ushers in a new phase of celebratory revival that lasts for the next 12 months. In New Orleans, there’s always a reason to throw a party. While some denizens of America’s puritan metropolises look at the Crescent City and see decadence, eccentricity, and an endless supply of colored beads, those of us less repressed souls know better. New Orleans is a place where musicians are reverentially called professors, voodoo is legit, fortunetellers form in cliques along the waterfront, the dead are never really dead, and food is religion.
Shout! Factory’s new four-CD box set Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans rounds up a staggering 85 tracks to simply sing the praises of the Big Easy. Its selections aren’t sequenced chronologically; by seating salty funk next to regal R&B or rambunctious zydeco next to seminal jazz, Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens captures the jumbled-laya vibe of the city itself. Yet no matter what their genre or year of conception, the songs all share the same desire to sing humid odes to New Orleans’ food, its people, its traditions, its joie de vivre.
Like the city’s laid back laissez faire attitude, Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens is an all-inclusive, all-night party. Well-known sizzlers like Dr. John’s “Iko Iko”, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s “St. James Infirmary”, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven’s “Potato Head Blues”, and the Hawketts’ “Mardi Gras Mambo” are instantly identifiable as aural postcards from the heart of New Orleans. But the box set goes beyond the familiar, fiercely heralding local talent with equal admiration. There’s a plethora of homegrown music that manages to live up to even the most notorious companion tracks. Songs like the Meters’ effortlessly funky “Hey Pocky A-Way”, the burnt-rubber blues of Earl King’s “No City like New Orleans”, the polyrhythmic pulse of Dave Bartholomew’s “Shrimp and Gumbo”, and Professor Longhair’s rollicking “Tipitina” share the inimitable stamp of the city’s fertile history. Toss in live tracks by the Neville Brothers and Irma Thomas, some underappreciated work by New Orleans writer/producer extraordinaire Allen Toussaint, and the zydeco-delia of Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, and you’ve got one of the best impressions of a city’s musical blueprint that you’re likely to ever find.
One eye-opening aspect of the box set’s track listing is just how many classic R&B songs have roots in the New Orleans’ scene. Included in Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens are staples of the R&B canon; while these artists may not be torchbearers of the Carnival experience, their contributions have helped nuance the city’s cornucopia-by-committee musical heritage. This explains the sequencing of “I’m Walkin'” by Fats Domino (who still calls New Orleans home), “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford (he always plays the city’s annual Jazz and Heritage festival), “Rip it Up” by Little Richard (his early recordings were recorded by local legend Cosimo Matassa), and “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe (who opened a lounge in New Orleans named after his hit song).
The box set comes with a collection of copious liner notes by a few New Orleans aficionados. They’re just about as fun as the music, offering up a bounty of city secrets, lore, and insider recommendations. In addition to the thoroughly researched paragraphs to accompany each song, the number of cultural essays could double as an alternative Frommer’s guide for your next vacation. Too often, liner notes for collections of this magnitude are neutered and underfed, so it’s encouraging that the creators of this box put as much thought into discussing the music as they did choosing it.
Ultimately, there’s simply too much good music included to discuss within the parameters of an article. To define the sinewy splendor of New Orleans is no easy task. Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens chips away at the layers of fact, fiction, hearsay, and legend, boasting a raucous good time that just happens to grasp what its hyped city is all about. The morning after listening to the wealth of delectable tunes, you’ll awaken with a sympathetic hangover, tasting gumbo on your tongue, and swear that you were there the night before.